Just 162 Light Years

[I’m going to say right here at the top that there’s a screenshot right down there at the bottom.  It has been tampered with.  This is a story, of sorts, and I’m afraid I’m not above falsifying a screen grab to make it fit a story.]


My first little cartographic expedition went pretty well, I thought.  As a tryout, at least.  It hadn’t exactly been challenging, and certainly didn’t cover any truly unexplored territory – but Universal Cartographics had been happy to buy my updated data for the short series of systems I’d been through, and it afforded me the thruster upgrade I’d been saving up for, as well as enough to eat for the next week or so.

I’d only been back a few days, but already the station corridors were starting to close in.  The bustle of people going about their business was grating on me – which I suppose is an inevitable consequence of settling yourself at such a high-population system as this.  Still, I wanted to get out again, and – the Galaxy pretty much being my oyster at the moment in terms of where I go and when – I already had an idea for my next excursion.

During my last journey I’d run into more binary systems than single stars.  I knew that, theoretically, multi-stellar systems were really the norm, with singles like Sol being the comparative minority.  But one thing I’d never seen was what was called a ‘contact binary’ system: a pair of stars of such size, mass and speed that their gravitic dance held them within touching distance: their outer layers actually merged together.

I know, I know: there’s nothing so special about that.  There are countless contact binaries out there, and I’m sure any seasoned traveller will have seen at least one.  You’ve probably seen a dozen.  But I never had, and I wanted to.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that a registered contact binary existed quite close to the Sol system, where I’d landed most recently.  The system of W Ursae Majoris lay just 162 light years from Sol: an ideal destination for my second exploratory journey. I figured I could bounce out to W-UMaj in relatively quick time, and use the return journey to make my way a little closer to home turf.  Achenar was still closed to me, of course, as it was to most commoners, but there’s no reason I couldn’t find somewhere to settle in Exioce again, or Vequess – or at least somewhere a little less Federal.

Repairs largely completed, I took Banjax out of Mars High and pointed her towards Ross 154, the first system on what was for me a moderately lengthy route.  But I covered the course in pretty good time, stopping here and there to survey the less travelled systems: to my surprise I found a couple of stars really quite close to the Federal core worlds whose systems didn’t really seem to have been covered much at all – they had no worlds of particular interest, nothing suitable for colonisation, terraforming or industrial exploitation, so had been, by and large, passed over in the rush of human expansion.

Approaching the target system I began to get impatient.  I’d plotted – or rather Banjax had plotted – a nice, careful route, which I’d followed obediently.  The route would use the lowest possible quantity of fuel for each jump.  It was a masterpiece of frameshift mathematics.  But as W Ursae Majoris crept ever closer in my view, I finally found my patience overcame me.  I couldn’t restrain myself.  I called the navigation panel back up and asked the computer to recalculate: “Screw efficiency”, I told Banjax.  “Get us there as fast as possible”.

“Plotting,” said machine-woman, and I tried not to place a sinister interpretation on her choice of word.  Before I knew it, there in front of me – or, actually, somewhat above me – was a new route.  A beautiful, shiny route, which bounced up, across and down, and got me to W-UMaj in but three little (or more accurately quite big and fuel-hungry) jumps.

I fought down the instinct that told me it was a dreadful waste of fuel. I had, after all, bought a nice shiny fuel scoop, capable of a collection rate up to thirty kilogrammes per second; and there were plenty of usable main-sequence stars on the route.  So why worry about waste?  I stopped off at HIP 50180 and swung around the star for only a minute or two before the tanks were nicely topped up.  Apart, presumably, from a little added wear and tear on the drive components, there wasn’t much downside.

I turned away from the star and as I cleared the worst of the near corona, the navigation system descrambled enough to lock on to the next, the last, step of my outward journey.  The orange targeting reticle glowed on the HUD, circling a fairly innocuous-looking star, fading into view as the glare from the star behind me began to recede.  There it was: my destination.  A 14.5 light-year jump to W Ursae Majoris – Contact Binary.

Push the throttle. Frameshift drive charging.

I love this bit.

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

Engage.

Stars fizzed and swirled around me and fell into the centre of my viewscreen; the midpoint darkened; a gateway into shadows.  There came that low hum that builds, layer upon layer, into an unsettling harmonic sound that always seems to originate from behind that distant darkness.  I’m sure it must be some sort of vibration somewhere in the ship – although it’s odd that, if I listen to it, I swear I can almost hear singing.

I didn’t have much more time to spend feeling uneasy.  The darkness reached out, took hold of my ship and dragged me into witch-space.

I spent a few minutes gliding unguided through a realm of shifting shadows and rolling clouds, and dark, web-like filaments of… what?  What are they?  Energy?  Matter?  Thought?  Then witch-space opened up at the far end and threw me at a sun.  By now I was a dab hand at this – it’s something a pilot learns pretty quickly, or they don’t get to pilot for long.  I yanked Banjax away from the yellow-white glare in front of me, and plunged into the darkness beyond the corona.  I’d deliberately not taken too good a look at the star I’d narrowly avoided: I wanted a proper view; a panorama; a vista. This was going to be something new, and I wanted to relish it in full.

I put my foot down and made a goodly distance between me and the pair of stars behind me.  I could see my scope reporting that, yes, there were two stars.  Good.  Opening the distance to about seven hundred light-seconds, I slowed the ship, pulling her down to sublight speed; then began a turn – and there, in front of me, lay my first ever contact binary system.

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